One of the enduring myths in the MBA admissions world is that one must have ironclad goals in order to gain admission to a top business school. While there is no rule against having very clear goals and having them can indeed help, it can be reasonable to offer a back-up plan, sketch broad professional goals or avoid answering the question altogether, in certain circumstances.

In recent years, Harvard Business School actually dropped its goal statement and its Why HBS? component. Instead of asking applicants to discuss their short and long term goals, HBS asks for a broader career vision. Not only that, but this vision question is itself optional, meaning that those who are unsure of their goals, need not answer the question. One thing to keep in mind is that the absence of a mandatory career essay question is not an underhanded trick, where the admissions office expects you to know that you are actually required to answer it. HBS admissions director Dee Leopold's is fairly clear about this on her blog,

When it comes to (a career essay) being valuable in our selection process, we find that the vast majority of our students may have a general idea of what they might want to do post HBS, but are very open and curious to explore many different career paths. As a School, we make a big investment in encouraging that exploration and helping students through a rigorous self-assessment process. We try to avoid sending a signal in the application process that we think that process should be completed pre-business school. I think that having this time for exploration is a major advantage of a two year MBA program.

Indeed, these sentiments are echoed by Chicago-Booth's Rose Martinelli, who told mbaMission:

For me, the question as to why an MBA is important is much more relevant than exactly where you're going, since goals change. The thought process that brought you to this place in your career is what interests me. I'm looking for a sense of direction and knowing what your needs are. If you have very refined goals, I would say that's great. But for the vast majority of people, if you really pressed them, goals were often created recently and typically just for the application. And, since the whole point of an MBA experience is to explore, expand and develop a new understanding and awareness of one's abilities and passions, I don't get hung up on goals. I am, however, very interested in path, plan and knowing one's self.

While a narrow career goal may not be necessary for HBS or Chicago, Soojin Kwon Koh, Director of Admissions at Michigan-Ross, takes a pragmatic approach, recognizing that the shaky economy means a back-up plan can be useful. Ms. Kwon Koh told mbaMission:

We think that (at times) having two goals can be practical. As this economic downturn has shown, sometimes people may have to pursue an alternate career path. We advise our students to do a thorough career self-assessment and identify which careers might be a good match for them based on their interests, values and priorities. We encourage them to reassess as they go along. Students should think more broadly about the skills they want to use and develop, and the kind of environment they want to work in.  Chances are, more than one industry or function will fit that bill.

We strongly recommend that you exercise caution and ensure that you understand an admissions office's philosophy, prior to preparing your goal statement. Still, it is myth that all schools insist on a deliberate set of short and long term goals. Aware of this, you, somewhat ironically, might find yourself making a far more personal and profound statement about your intentions.